Most of what is known as Latin music comes from the melding of cultures that took place during the Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the Americas. Musicians of various races and cultures came into contact with instruments they’d never heard before—the European guitar, African conga and tambora drums, native gaita flutes and maracas—and by combining their sounds, created a wide range of forms and styles.
Those sound combinations traveled throughout the hemisphere—and later the world—acquiring new subtleties and variations, and continuing to morph into exciting new musical forms. Here’s how seven Latin major music genres emerged:
WHERE IT’S FROM: Cuba, Puerto Rico, New York
WHAT DEFINES THE SOUND: A distinct beat called the clave. A three-drum section (bongos, congas and timbales) executes the complex, syncopated rhythms. Salsa lyrics tell short stories and usually end with a call-and-response section.
KEY ORIGINATING ARTISTS: Frank “Machito” Grillo, Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco, Celia Cruz
RELATED GENRES: Mambo, Charanga
Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians in the 1940s and ‘50s developed this upbeat, danceable genre inspired by Cuban son, but incorporating other styles, such as mambo, rumba and cha cha. Machito’s orchestra added jazz and a big band sound. Puerto Rican musicians like Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez brought elements of their island’s folk music, like bomba and plena.
The term “salsa” (sauce) was coined in the 1960s. Many of the genre’s top musicians were signed to a label co-founded by Dominican bandleader Johnny Pacheco, and performed internationally as the Fania All Stars.
WHERE IT’S FROM: Dominican Republic
WHAT DEFINES THE SOUND: A repeating five-beat rhythmic pattern called a quintillo played by three key instruments: a diatonic accordion, a two-headed hand drum called tambora and a metal scraper called charrasca or güira. Lyrics are usually festive and upbeat.
HISTORICAL ROOTS: Spanish ballroom dance merged with African and Indigenous Taíno instruments.
KEY ORIGINATING ARTISTS: Francisco “Ñico” Lora, Luis Alberti
RELATED GENRES: Bachata
Merengue music and dance became popular in the Dominican Republic during the Haitian occupation of Santo Domingo (1822-1844), but Dominican musicians increased its tempo to disassociate it from Haiti. Originally played with string instruments, it transformed with the introduction of the button accordion, brought by German traders near the end of the century.
Long a musical embodiment of pride and resistance, merengue was shunned by the country’s elite until Rafael Leonidas Trujillo rose to power (1930 to 1961). The working-class dictator promoted it as the national dance of the Dominican Republic and helped its proliferation. During this period, Luis Alberti composed the classic tune “Compadre Pedro Juan.”
WHERE IT’S FROM: Mexico
WHAT DEFINES THE SOUND: Traditionally played by a mariachi ensemble that relies heavily on stringed instruments like the vihuela and deep-bodied guitarrón. Lyrics skew deep and passionate, evoking love for country and honor.
HISTORICAL ROOTS: European waltz and polka, as well as Cuban bolero
KEY ORIGINATING ARTISTS: José Alfredo Jiménez, Felipe Valdés Leal, Vicente Fernández
RELATED GENRES: Corridos
The popularity of the canción ranchera is tied to the sense of national pride that followed the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917). As the country grew and progressed, rural Mexicans moved to the big cities, bringing their music along. In the 1930s, Mexico’s government promoted ranchera and encouraged the production of so-called comedias rancheras, musical films featuring radio stars like Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante. By the 1950s, Ranchera was the nation’s most popular music genre.
No other composer has equaled José Alfredo Jiménez in the quality and quantity of Rancheras created, often touching on sentiments of passionate love and deep-felt heartbreak. And no other performer elevated Rancheras as did international superstar Vicente Fernández.
WHERE IT’S FROM: Colombia
WHAT DEFINES THE SOUND: A signature double beat is played on maracas or drum, while flutes known as gaitas carry the melody. Lyrics deal with love, country and celebration of life.
HISTORICAL ROOTS: Enslaved Africans in the 19th century incorporated native instruments to their percussion-based dance forms.
KEY ORIGINATING ARTISTS: Celso Piña, La Sonora Dinamita, Aniceto Molina
RELATED GENRES: La Sonora Dinamita
Cumbia began as a courtship dance during colonial times in Colombia’s Caribbean region. African slaves learned to play native instruments such as the gaita and the guacharaca, a percussion instrument made from palm trees. Rhythmic structures were kept simple, as many of the male dancers were in shackles. As cumbia spread throughout Colombia, it allowed for European influences such as string and brass instruments, and the introduction of Spanish-language vocals.
Cumbia expanded throughout the continent. Regional versions appear in Argentina, Peru, Mexico and even the United States. (Tejano star Selena popularized a style dubbed techno-cumbia.)
WHERE IT’S FROM: Brazil
WHAT DEFINES THE SOUND: A smooth, jazzy style combining classical guitar with soft, understated vocals. Lyrics are subtle but romantic.
HISTORICAL ROOTS: Its origins are in samba, a style that developed in the Afro-Brazilian communities of Rio de Janeiro in the early 20th century.
KEY ORIGINATING ARTISTS: João Gilberto, Vinicius de Moraes, Antônio Carlos Jobim
RELATED GENRES: Samba
Bossa Nova emerged as a calmer, softer form of the danceable samba, popular during Brazil’s annual Lenten carnival. Vocalist João Gilberto began experimenting with jazz sounds with his guitar in the late 1950s, a period of cultural effervescence. Bossa Nova (loosely translated as “new trend”) first appeared in the 1959 album by Brazilian singer Elizete Cardoso, Canção do Amor Demais, in which Gilberto played guitar on two tracks composed by de Moraes and Jobim. That same year, Gilberto released his own debut album, Chega de Saudade, and immediately became part of a new cultural movement, with the two composers.
The Bossa Nova sound attracted jazz musicians like Stan Getz, who collaborated with Gilberto in the now classic 1964 album Getz/Gilberto, which included the hit “Garota de Ipanema” (“Girl from Ipanema”). Sérgio Mendes and Brazil 66 pushed it further with “Mas Que Nada.”
WHERE IT’S FROM: The Río de la Plata region of Argentina and Uruguay
WHAT DEFINES THE SOUND: The bandoneón (a type of accordion) is the essential sound of this dramatic, danceable form. Tango can be strictly instrumental, but when it is sung, the lyrics can be philosophical, decry social ills or express passionate love.
HISTORICAL ROOTS: European immigrants in Montevideo and Buenos Aires combined European ballroom dances with African rhythms brought to the Americas in the slave trade.
KEY ORIGINATING ARTISTS: Rosendo Mendizábal, Vicente Greco, Carlos Gardel, Astor Piazzola
RELATED GENRES: Milonga
Tango originated in the 1880s in the dance halls and brothels of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, as a dance form in which couples embraced. In the late 19th century, the bandoneón was introduced by German immigrants, and by the early 20th century, it became an essential part of tango.
A major change was introduced when singer Carlos Gardel recorded the first song composed to be performed as a tango, “Mi Noche Triste,” about doomed love. Gardel would go on to record hundreds of tangos and become the genre’s biggest star. His composition "El Día Que Me Quieras” is considered a masterpiece and has had multiple versions worldwide.
Gardel also starred in dozens of movies he produced under a distribution deal with Paramount Pictures. He died in a plane crash in Colombia in 1935, but his music continues to be played by legions of fans throughout the Americas.
WHERE IT’S FROM: Panama, Puerto Rico
WHAT DEFINES THE SOUND: A loud, driving drum-machine track featuring the dembow rhythm, a syncopated beat pattern repeated in almost every song. The lyrics are often about erotic love, inspiring a sensual dance move known as perreo.
HISTORICAL ROOTS: Jamaican reggae and dancehall recordings. In Puerto Rico, musicians incorporated hip hop and the island’s folk genres of bomba and plena.
KEY ORIGINATING ARTISTS: El General, Vico C, Don Omar, Daddy Yankee
RELATED GENRES: Reggae, Dancehall, Trap
Since the beginning of the 20th century, when Jamaican laborers were imported to build the Panama Canal, Panamanian musicians recorded Spanish versions of reggae hits. In the 1980s, El General and other artists began recording original songs combining elements of hip hop with reggae. In Puerto Rico, rapper Vico C was doing the same thing with his cassette recordings.
In the early 1990s, the term reggaetón was coined in Puerto Rico, and began to be used widely by artists like Don Chezina, Speedy and Wisin and Yandel. In 2004, albums by N.O.R.E. and Daddy Yankee became huge hits among Latinos in the United States, and artists like Don Omar, Tito El Bambino and Tego Calderón began traveling to Europe, where reggaetón gained immense popularity.